While it may not be as well-known as the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s Farewell Address, published in September, 1796, remains a very important and very relevant document. Intended to announce his retirement from professional politics after 20 years of service to the government(s) of the United States, it provides a window into some of the dangers that the first President believed his nation was due to face. Many of the issues that Washington discussed continue to be as significant now as they were at the end of the 18th century; the dangers of excessive borrowing, partisan conflict, entangling foreign alliances, free trade, and the erosion of the separation of powers. At the same time the Address also provides insight into Washington himself, his take on public service, and his view of the role of politics and politicians in his country’s national life.
I’d like to discuss both of these aspects of the Address; the ways in which the things it discusses continue to be relevant, and what it says about Washington as a political actor. But before I do either I want to take a moment to talk about why Washington felt compelled to put pen to paper, and perhaps more importantly why he felt the need to retire at all.
You see, by 1796 Washington was an extraordinarily popular man. He hadn’t always been, of course. Early in the course of the Revolutionary War, when his defeats outweighed his victories, there was talk among members of Congress and his fellow officers of replacing him with someone more experienced. And there were more experienced officers serving in the Continental Army at that time like Charles Lee and Horatio Gates (veterans of the British Army) who were perhaps also more skilled tacticians. But Washington persevered, as did his advocates in Congress, and thanks to his administrative skill, eye for talent and careful judgement he was able to hold the British to a standstill and prolong the war long enough for there to be a negotiated peace.
It was during the years of his tenure as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army that Washington began the process of building his reputation. Unlike the members of Congress, who directed the business of the nation but were not very visible, Washington occupied a very public-facing position. In the course of his duties he travelled across the Northern and Southern states, coordinated with Governors and legislatures to ensure that the Army was well-manned and supplied, and appointed a great number of officers (who themselves came from across the United States) to see to the war effort’s day-to-day demands. In the process he became one of the few men in America that was known from one end of the Union to the other. In particular, he became very popular among the enlisted men and junior officers, many of whom looked on him as a father figure and became some of his most steadfast supporters.
When, in March, 1783, members of the Continental Army nearly mutinied over Congress’s inability to reimburse them for their service, it was Washington’s impassioned speech that put a stop to any serious talk of rebellion. And when, in December of the same year, it came time for him to resign his commission he did so without hesitation.
I’d like to stop for a moment and address this point. In December, 1783 there was virtually no single person in the United States who held more definite power than George Washington. He commanded a veteran fighting force whose men and officers adored him, and enjoyed the support and admiration of people from across the country. If he so desired it, I do believe, he could have marched on Congress, turned them out and declared himself King of America. But he didn’t. Feeling that his duty had been fulfilled, he turned in his commission and rode home to Virginia with the intention of living out the rest of his life in peaceful retirement. In a time when men who wielded power gave it up only along with their lives, this was a truly astonishing thing to do.
The events of 1783 greatly enhanced Washington’s standing as a man of honesty and integrity, and when it came time to decide who should stand for election as the first president under the newly ratified constitution there was little need for debate. Though he might have preferred to retire again to his plantation at Mount Vernon, Washington bowed to the wishes of his countrymen and was unanimously elected in 1789. He did so again in 1792, once more under protest and in fact it was during the lead-up to his second election that Washington originally penned large sections of the Address. At that time in the early 1790s the United States had become increasingly divided into rival political camps, defined by their support for a strong federal government and close ties with Britain, or strong state governments and close ties with France. Never a man who lusted after power, he was convinced to serve a second term by the nearly unanimous affirmation of his colleagues and subordinates that only he was capable of uniting the factions and keeping the nation from tearing itself apart.
Over the course of his second term Washington was challenged on both the foreign and domestic fronts, and though his personal popularity was not significantly damaged, he found the public agitation that resulted exhausting. In 1794 he signed the Jay Treaty (which normalised relations with Great Britain after a period of tension), creating an uproar among the pro-French citizens of the United States. His subsequent desire to keep the United States neutral in the emerging conflict between Britain and France (whose recent revolution had left them with a republican government) ultimately angered supporters of both nations. Around the same time, in reaction to the imposition of an excise tax on whiskey, a rebellion broke out among famers and distillers in Western Pennsylvania. Aiming to settle the insurrection before it gained significant momentum, Washington rode at the head of 13,000 militia troops who arrived in the frontier region not long after the rebels disbursed. Though his government emerged victorious in its effort to quash the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington found the effort required to administer an increasingly divided nation personally draining. With another election on the horizon in 1796, and the temper of public opinion having quieted somewhat, Washington made it clear that he was not prepared to run for a third term.